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How hand-washing protects everyone

June 27, 2019 | UCI Health
person washing hands at hospital

When you visited a friend or relative in the hospital, did you clean your hands thoroughly before entering the room and again before leaving? Did the patient get out of bed to wash up before shaking your hand or eating a meal?

Did the many healthcare providers and service people wash their hands before examining the patient or performing patient-care tasks?

Basic cleanliness practices are vital in a hospital setting because at least 80,000 U.S. deaths each year can be attributed to hospital-acquired infections, according to the World Health Organization (WHO). Patients most commonly acquire:

  • Bloodstream infections
  • Surgical site infections
  • Urinary tract infections
  • Chest/respiratory infections
  • Gastrointestinal infections

Remarkably, 80% of those infections are spread by hands. That is why UCI Health takes hand hygiene seriously, says Infection Preventionist Jennifer Yim, RN, BSN, who is certified in infection control and healthcare quality.

Creating a cleanliness culture

UCI Medical Center has a sophisticated program — even employing secret-shopper observers and patient surveys  — to ensure that employees are rigorous about cleaning their hands.

Patients and visitors haven't been a major part of the campaign, but Yim wants to bring them into the equation, encouraging them to speak up if they think someone hasn't followed proper hand hygiene. She also wants them to understand that they, too, need to practice good hand hygiene to promote patient safety and prevent infection.

“We owe it to our patients to educate them about the need to clean their own hands and to empower them to ask their healthcare providers to do the same,” she says. “They might say, ‘May I ask you to wash your hands before you examine me?’”

Challenging your doctor?

Is it OK to ask a doctor to wash his or her hands? Definitely, says Yim. But she knows some patients may be afraid to offend or are thinking more about their diagnosis and hospital bills than paying attention to hand hygiene.

Still, the importance of hand hygiene vigilance cannot be understated.

“Asking every person if they’ve washed their hands is the single most important thing a patient or visitos can do to help prevent infection,” Yim says.

“If everybody washed their hands more often, fewer germs would be passed from one surface or person to another.”

Germs live on many surfaces

We know that thousands of germs live on everyone’s hands at any one time. These microbes don’t normally cause problems, but some can do serious damage if they enter a patient’s body through a wound or an intravenous line. The infection may not emerge until days after the initial exposure.

Studies have shown that microbes also survive on other surfaces, sometimes for hours. Consider how many touch points there are in a hospital, especially in a patient’s room.

For example, a doctor may turn a doorknob or push an elevator button before entering a patient’s room, shake hands, then examine the patient. If the doctor didn't clean their hands properly before checking the patient's wound, germs from all those surfaces could be transferred.

The same is true for other healthcare workres or family members assisting with a patient's care.

Hand-washing how-to

Yim describes the best method to ensure a thorough handwashing.

To clean your hands properly:

  • Wet your hands in warm water
  • Lather hands thoroughly with soap
  • Rub palms together vigorously and scrub all surfaces, including the backs of your hands and wrists, between your fingers and under your fingernails
  • Rinse hands in warm water
  • Use a single-use towel to dry your hands

Follow the same technique when using hand sanitizer gels.

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